‘Skip the Bag, Save the River.” No, it’s not a line from The Godfather (that would be “Leave the gun, take the cannoli”). Rather, it was the District of Columbia’s motto for a 2009 initiative to clean up the Anacostia River by charging five cents for every plastic bag used by consumers in D.C. shops and supermarkets (anywhere food is sold). The idea was twofold—reduce the number of bags that end up in the Anacostia and generate revenue to clean up the river from folks who persist in using plastic instead of reusable totes. Practically from the outset, D.C. officials have been touting it as a singular legislative success.
In only a matter of months, plastic bag use was reportedly down 85 percent. And yearly bag revenue has steadily increased from $1.5 million in 2010 to $2.1 million last year. Amazing, isn’t it? All that money coming in from people who continue to ask for plastic bags at the store and a dramatic reduction in the number of plastic bags people are requesting at the store.
Well, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the numbers turn out to be phony. As the Washington Post observed in a lengthy analysis of the program last week, “According to a footnote in a report from the Office of the Chief Financial Officer in 2009, there was no reliable estimate of bag use in the District.”
So officials modified estimates from Seattle Public Utilities, which came from a 2004 waste-composition study that involved sifting through loads of trash in garbage trucks. D.C. officials came up with a figure of 270 million bags used annually in grocery, drug, convenience and liquor stores in the District—more than 450 per person.
Phil Rozenski, director of sustainability for South Carolina-based Novolex, one of the nation’s leading manufacturers of plastic and paper bags, said he pointed out to D.C. officials that the Seattle numbers exceeded federal estimates for the number of plastic bags the average American used.
But wait, there’s more: Concerning the millions of dollars supposedly generated by the initiative since 2010, it seems only a small amount has gone directly to cleaning up the Anacostia. The Post notes that “more of the fund money has been allocated for field trips for schoolchildren and employee salaries than to tangible cleanup projects on the river and its watershed.”
The largest grant from the fund so far, $1.2 million, will be paid over the next two years to send every D.C. fifth-grader on a two-night field trip at campsites outside the District, some up to 30 miles from the Anacostia River. Ten thousand children will participate in activities designed to provide a “meaningful watershed education experience,” such as canoeing, talking about trash, conducting water-quality experiments and learning to milk a cow.
Finally, it turns out there’s a clause in that bag law stating funds cannot be used to support existing salaries—they can only be spent on jobs created by the fund. Based on an audit, says the Post, “fund money paid for portions of the salaries of 17 employees, although only one new position was created as a result of the fee.” Luckily, the audit was “relabeled a ‘concern’ rather than a formal audit finding, and there was no mention of the clause.” Problem solved!
Why is it that even President Obama hasn’t been forcefully pushing for D.C. statehood?